St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” (Part Seven).
Icon of St. Basil
N.B. The following text in this blog-post St. Basil’s “Animal Prayers” are a “Hoax” Part Seven is Copyright © 2012 Philip Johnson.
PREFACE TO PART SEVEN
This series of seven posts has looked at the claim that two prayers for animals were composed by St. Basil the Great. The claim has been made in many books that advocate a generous spirit and good ethical consideration of animals. The Internet is chock-a-block full of websites and blogs reproducing the prayers and attributing them to St. Basil.
The truth is that neither prayer originates with St. Basil or from the liturgies of the Eastern Orthodox Churches. As I pointed out in Part Six, one prayer was actually published in 1910 and was written by the liberal Baptist theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. The other prayer surfaced during World War One as part of a wider litany in services held on the battle fronts of Europe.
How could academics — Christian and non-Christian alike — and (not overlooking mass-market authors too) be so easily swept up in making claims about these two prayers coming from St. Basil when the evidence contradicts the claims?
I would like to wrap up this series with some reflections and lessons that we can all take to heart. I would also acknowledge here that some of my findings parallel the 2010 forum discussion among some Eastern Orthodox believers on checking the sources of the St. Basil prayers (click here).
NICE PRAYERS BUT LETS NOT DISHONOUR ST. BASIL
I am not calling for a boycott on using either prayer. What I have pointed out is that the reputation of the positive ethical case for animals is marred when a literary house of cards is used to advance the cause. Further to this, we dishonour the memory of St. Basil, and we inadvertently bear-false witness about him when we misattribute the prayers to his authorship. The mundane truth is that both prayers were composed during the second decade of the twentieth-century.
NUMBER ONE LESSON: CHECK THE SOURCES
As I have stated in previous posts, too many authors have been engaged in a circular process of cross-quoting each other for the texts of the prayers and failed to check if the prayers are in any primary sources. This rather dubious and very lazy habit reflects poor information-retrieval work. It is a problem abounding in mass-market publications, academic books and journals, and has also gone unchecked by examiners of doctoral dissertations.The net effect is that a literary house of cards has been erected because nobody has bothered to check the claims about the authenticity of both prayers by reading the known works of St. Basil and checking the various versions of the Liturgy of St Basil.
[Left: Title page from a “forgotten” author on animals and the afterlife: Peter Buchan, Scriptural & Philosophical Arguments; or, Cogent Proofs from Reason and Revelation that Brutes have Souls and that their Souls are Immortal, London, 1824].
PRAYERS AS A COUNTER-CRITICISM
Some Christians have argued that these prayers of St. Basil demonstrate that the early church had a very generous and kind ethic toward animals. This constitutes part of a counter-criticism that Christians have occasionally used in reply to the negative criticisms that have come in the late 1960s from the late medieval professor Lynn Townsend White, and in the 1970s from the utilitarian ethicist Peter Singer .
Others who have echoed to varying degrees some of these criticisms of Christianity include animal rights lawyers such as Steven J. Bartlett and Steven Wise, the English journalist Antony Brown, and past-president of RSPCA Australia Dr Hugh Wirth.
Peter Singer stands at the harsh end of the spectrum in his criticisms of the Bible:
Here is a myth to make human beings feel their supremacy and their power. Man alone is made in the image of God. Man alone is given dominion over all the animals and told to subdue the earth. (Peter Singer, “Prologue: Ethics and the New Animal Liberation Movement” In Defence of Animals ed. Peter Singer Oxford: Blackwell, 1985, pp 2-3.)
At the softer end of the spectrum the journalist Antony Brown poses the rhetorical question, “For had not God, in the Book of Genesis, ordained that man should have mastery of all creation?” (Antony Brown, Who Cares for Animals? 150 Years of the RSPCA London: William Heinemann, 1974, p 4.)
Hugh Wirth mimics Brown’s point, “the Old Testament Book of Genesis proclaims that humans have dominion over all creation.” (Hugh J. Wirth, “Foreword” in For All Creatures: A History of RSPCA Victoria, Barbara Pertzel, Burwood, Vic: RSCPA Victoria, 2006, p v.) I note parenthetically that parts of Wirth’s foreword shows an unacknowledged yet very strong verbal dependence on Brown’s book.
In broad brushstrokes, Christianity has been typecast as playing the role in history of an ideological Darth Vader toward the earth and animals. A further brief hint of this is embedded beneath the surface of the remarks of Canadian academic Jodey Castricano (“The Question of the Animal: Why Now?” Topia 21 Spring 2009: 186):
Twenty centuries of excluding from the ethical domain members of species other than our own has served to reify speciesism and to naturalize the disconnect between merely acknowledging our obligations “in theory” and being really willing to redress animal cruelty as a whole, by action or by law.
Although Castricano does not name the Church, it is the influence of Christianity over the past twenty centuries that is implied. In her generalisation one cannot help but see a stigma applied as if it is a foregone conclusion as a fact. Why just twenty centuries? Was the ancient Near Eastern and Mediterranean world more ethical and considerate toward animals before the birth of Christianity? What is the evidence that the annals of church history shows no ethical or even spiritual regard for animals?
In light of Castricano’s cultural context, it is interesting to draw to recollection just in Canada’s history the publication of Rev. John Moffatt, The French Exhibition of Horrors: A Sermon on the Sin of Torturing Animals, Toronto Canada, 1879. Moffatt’s work is one small signal that ethical and spiritual considerations about the treatment of animals was something that some clergy took seriously before the twentieth century
Do we need to be reminded once again that the principal supporters of the earliest anti-cruelty to animal laws were Christian political figures such as Thomas Fowell Buxton, William Wilberforce and Richard Martin? That the founder of England’s SPCA (later RSPCA) was the Anglican clergyman Rev. Arthur Broome?
Why is it that when Sir William Foster Stawell (1815-1889) is described as the first president of the Victorian Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (For All Creatures: A History of RSPCA Victoria page 8), that there is no mention whatsoever of him being an active member of the Anglican Church and a participant in Synod work? Is it because some current writers may have imbibed on the mistaken view that religion is private and has no connection to a social ethic and then read that back into history?
Christian teaching, based on the Book of Genesis chapter one concerning both human dominion and humans created in God’s image, is often identified as the ideological engine that has shaped and/or justified destructive human attitudes. In effect, it is alleged that the Bible in its passages about human dominion, stands in the background as the ideological root for our rapacious consumption of the earth’s natural resources. It is also the same source that has justified the exploitation and cruel subjugation of animals across the centuries. I will not sift through that argument here.
As Dorothy Sayers once remarked in another context, “any stigma will do to beat a dogma.” (Dorothy Sayers, Creed or Chaos? and other Essays in Popular Theology, London: Religious Book Club, 1947, p 21).
It seems to me that much of the contemporary theological discussion about ecological and animal ethics has been expressed in partial reaction to, or is implicitly shaped by, the negative criticisms of White, Singer and others. There is definitely a valid place for replying to those criticisms particularly when a straw-man portrait of Christianity has been erected as a piece of propaganda.
However I find it is quite curious that some contemporary Christians have tended to develop a theology-on-the-run or in reaction to critics. A theology and ethic about the earth and about animals ought to start with primary consideration of Scripture, then the tradition and history of the church, before engaging with the socio-ethical contexts of our era. I will not pursue that problem in this present post but will reserve it for future discussion.
The prayers of St. Basil serve as a strong reminder for all writers in the genre of animal ethics and theology that when it comes to documenting quotes and presenting a powerful case: always check your sources!
RESOURCES ON ST. BASIL
Mario Baghos, “St Basil’s Eschatological Vision: Aspects of the Recapitulation of History And The ‘Eighth Day’,” Phronema 25 (2010): 85-103.
George S. Bebis, “Introduction to the Liturgical Theology of St. Basil the Great,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 42, 3-4 (1997): 273-285.
Doru Castache, “Christian Worldview: Understandings From St Basil the Great,” Phronema 25 (2010): 21-56.
Peter Karavites, “Saint Basil and Byzantine Hymnology,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 37, 3-4 (1992): 203-214.
Annemarie C. Mayer, “Ecclesial Communion: The Letters of St Basil the Great Revisited,” International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church 5, 3 (October 2005): 226-241.
Leonel L. Mitchell, “The Alexandrian Anaphora of St. Basil of Caesarea: Ancient Source of ‘A Common Eucharistic Prayer’,” Anglican Theological Review 58 (1976): 194-206.
Saint Basil Letters, Volume 1, translated by Sister Agnes Clare Way in The Fathers of the Church: A New Translation, Volume 13, ed. Roy Joseph Defferrari (Washington DC: Catholic University of America Press, 1951).
Liturgy of St Basil:
Thomas Brett, A Collection of the Principal Liturgies: used in the Christian Church in the Celebration of the Holy Eucharist (London: Rivington, 1838).
John Brownlie, Hymns of the Early Church, translated from Greek and Latin Sources (London: Morgan & Scott, 1913).
John Brownlie, Hymns of the Holy Eastern Church: Translated from the Service Books (Paisley: Alexander Gardner, 1902).
John Brownlie, Hymns of the Russian Church (London: Oxford University Press, 1920).
The Coptic Liturgy According to St Basil (Copt Net Archives).
The Coptic Liturgy of St Basil, 4th ed. (Arncliffe: Coptic Orthodox Sunday School NSW, 1998). [Via TheAlphaOrg]
Marcos Daoud, Liturgy of the Ethiopian Church, revised by H. E. Blatta Marsie Hazen (1959. reprinted Ethiopian Orthodox Church, Kingston, Jamaica, 1991). [Via ethiopianorthodox.org]
The Divine Liturgy of our Father Among the Saints Basil the Great: Ruthenian Recension A Study Text [Slavonic text translated into English. Draft edition, 2011].
Divine Liturgy of St Basil the Great [Greek version translated Saint Luke Orthodox Church]
George Mastrantonis, Introduction to the Divine Liturgy [Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America).
The Prayers of the Liturgy of St Basil (anastasis.org.uk)
Fr. Abraam D. Sleman ed. St Basil Liturgy: Reference Book (CopticChurch.net)